Fort Mill’s Epps, other local school administrators pleased Gov. Haley is making education a priority

rsouthmayd@heraldonline.comJanuary 19, 2014 

— For the first time during her three years in office, Gov. Nikki Haley has announced a proposal to improve education in South Carolina, and local school officials like what they see – but cautiously so.

“Going into it, I was nervous about it because Gov. Haley has not shown an interest in K-12 education up to this point,” Fort Mill Superintendent Chuck Epps said. His first impression of the plan was one of pleasant surprise.

Under the Republican governor’s plan, the state would spend $160 million on classroom technology, additional reading intervention and expanding school choice options. She also calls for changing the school funding formula to make it “fairer and simpler.”

Of that $160 million, $97 million would go to programs to help children who live in poverty, $30 million would be used to hire additional elementary school reading coaches, and $29 million would be spent to improve Internet and wireless capabilities in schools.

The plan also would put more money toward summer reading camps, teacher training in reading and technology, charter schools and adult education classes.

New retention plan

A major part of Haley’s plan is the creation of a third-grade retention policy, based on reading performance. North Carolina adopted a similar policy in 2013.

Studies have shown that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are much more likely to drop out of high school and end up in jail at some point in their lives, Epps said.

Haley’s plan would give all elementary schools a “reading coach.” Depending on the percentage of students in a school who fail to meet basic reading standards, the state would pay either the entire cost or half the cost of that position.

Each Clover elementary school already has a position like that, without state assistance, Superintendent Marc Sosne said. All of Clover’s elementary schools would fall in the 50 percent funded category.

Both Epps and York Superintendent Vernon Prosser said they would hesitate to accept state money to hire reading coaches without assurances the state would continue to pay for them beyond the 2014-15 school year.

That can’t be a one-time state allocation, Prosser said, because in 2015-2016, the burden of paying for those additional reading positions would fall to the districts.

Just the beginning

Haley has said her proposal is just the beginning of what must be a multi-year effort to transform South Carolina’s schools within the next decade, but her proposal does not say how she would pay for it beyond the 2014-15 fiscal year.

“If you put these (new programs) in, make sure there’s a vehicle for them to continue,” Prosser said. “Don’t be short-sighted.”

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, said he understands those concerns.

“If we really want to make some progress on reading,” said Hayes, a member of the Senate Education Committee, “we’ve got to have some recurring dollars.”

Just because the Legislature might only pay for these positions for one year now doesn’t mean lawmakers can’t come back and reallocate money for them again, Hayes said.

Funding concerns

Epps, Sosne and Prosser also expressed concern about Haley’s plan to pay for her proposal.

“I just want to make sure that new money is really new, and it’s not coming from something else we may have to cut,” Sosne said.

Sosne also worries about adjusting the way state education money would be distributed to districts under Haley’s plan, which calls for giving more money to districts with less resources.

Haley has said no tax increase is needed and no district would get less money under her proposal. A projected increase in tax collections would pay for most of her plan, she says.

“All students in South Carolina deserve the same quality education that students in Clover are getting,” he said. “I’m hopeful (Haley) can make it happen without taking resources away from Clover.”

Lawmakers already are looking carefully at that issue, Hayes said, and they will want to do their best to “hold harmless” districts like Clover and Fort Mill, which have richer tax bases, as more state dollars are given to districts with higher poverty levels.

“Hopefully, we’ll have the money to make sure Clover and Fort Mill aren’t hurt by any change,” Hayes said.

And while more money for technology and reading specialists would be welcomed, Prosser said, lawmakers should pay more attention to the base student cost, which he calls the “cornerstone” of paying for public education.

Need to cover base costs

The Education Finance Act provides a formula that determines how much money is needed for a “minimally adequate education,” said Elaine Bilton, the Rock Hill school district’s executive director of finance.

“Unfortunately, the base student cost that the state is giving us doesn’t fully fund that formula,” Bilton said.

But that base student cost is the key moving forward, Prosser said.

“If you fully fund that,” he said, “then that gives districts enough flexibility do what they need to do locally.”

Another major piece of Haley’s proposal would change the way the state calculates how much money to spend on education. State money for education currently comes from several different sources.

“South Carolina’s schools are funded through an incomprehensible mix of hundreds of programs and funding streams, each with their own compliance burdens and programmatic restrictions,” the proposal reads.

The Education Finance Act would be difficult to change because of how complicated it is, Hayes said.

Bilton agrees, but she said consolidating it would be helpful to the school districts.

“It would be difficult to change,” she said, “but it is also very difficult for us to keep up with.”

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

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